Editor’s Note: Stephanie Coontz is director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, which is hosted by the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author, most recently, of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Stephanie Coontz: Ivanka Trump's letter is a rebuke of the administration's own policies
Entitlement programs should allow for the security and prosperity of all Americans, she writes
In a letter to The Wall Street Journal this week, Ivanka Trump gave a robust defense of the Trump administration’s proposed paid family leave program. The Journal’s editorial board had denounced it as a government “entitlement” that “could create another disincentive for work and advancement.”
Ms. Trump indignantly denied that paid leave was an “entitlement,” a word that has become an epithet in American politics. Rather, she said, it’s “an investment in America’s working families.”
But whether consciously or not, Ms. Trump’s defense represents a stinging rebuke to the combination of lofty rhetoric and callous policies emanating from the new administration and Congress. She frankly admits that the unregulated market, hailed by so many politicians as the ultimate creator of jobs and prosperity for all, has failed “those who need these benefits the most.” She added, “The poorest, most vulnerable workers in our society get left behind” by business-provided work-family policies.
Fewer than 10% of individuals in the lowest 25% of earners have access to paid family leave. As a result, they often lose or are forced to quit their jobs after having a child. And this, Ms. Trump notes, results in far greater damage to their prospects for future work and advancement, and “a far greater cost to society over the long term,” than the government funding required to support “healthier children and parents in more tightly bonded families” with a “stronger attachment to the labor force” in the long run.
Of course, however Ms. Trump frames it, paid leave would indeed be an entitlement – and an investment. A new mother or father is entitled to paid leave; the child is entitled to bond with its parents. And government makes an investment in parents’ ability to put food on the table while they are at home and to return to work without having sacrificed their prospects for advancement.
Americans should be entitled to live in a society that invests in the jobs, education and infrastructure they need to attain a comfortable standard of living now and to be confident their children and grandchildren will have equal or greater opportunities to succeed.
Responsible businesses can help with that. But on their own, private enterprises can’t create the conditions that ensure our children get the safe drinking water, quality childcare and early education programs that make it possible for them to navigate a path to a healthy, productive life.
Ivanka Trump endorses this essential principle in her letter. We need entitlement programs that invest in and enhance our human and natural resources. Paid family leave is one. Here are others:
- Nutrition programs, such as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that helps 16 million children get the food and vitamins they need for healthy brain development and school achievement. A long-term study found that low-income children whose families got food stamps were as adults much less likely than non-recipients to suffer health problems that produce disability dependence (obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes), and girls in particular were more likely to be economically self-sufficient.
- Access to maternity care and follow-up, now under severe threat under this administration, is a tremendously cost-effective investment entitlement. A study showed that mothers of children enrolled in the Nurse Family Partnership spent less time on welfare and had significantly fewer arrests and convictions well into their 20s than the control group.
- The Abecedarian Project, a preschool program in North Carolina, followed participants from early childhood through adolescence and young adulthood. At age 30, 75% of participants had worked full time for at least 16 of the previous 24 months, compared with just 53% of the control group. They were five times less likely to have used public assistance in the previous seven years.
- The Michigan HighScope Perry Preschool Study compared adults at age 27 and 40 who had graduated from the preschool program with a control group that had not. By age 27, the former had half as many teen pregnancies as the control group. At age 40, they were 26% less likely to have received food stamps or welfare in the past 10 years and were half as likely to have served any time in jail.
Unfortunately, not only does Donald Trump’s budget fail to embrace such initiatives, but it makes massive cuts in entitlement programs that are vital investments in our human infrastructure: It calls for cuts of 25% to the SNAP, or food stamp, program, 13.5% to education, and 16.25% to health and human services.
The Senate health care bill removes the guarantee of maternity care for pregnant women. Funding for Head Start, child care assistance, job training and domestic violence prevention, as well as food safety, environmental protection, transportation and medical research are all at risk.
Now, there are in fact some policies that DO perpetuate dependency and poverty while depleting our national treasury and natural resources. But these are the very programs the current budget would expand. Under the current tax plan, the top 1% of earners would receive annual tax cuts averaging out to at least another $250,000 per household.
The extra money these lucky recipients would save per year is seven times as much as the entire annual salary of a working adult with only a high school diploma, and six times that of a worker with some college but no BA degree. So much for Trump’s promise to put the interests of less-educated workers first.
It gets worse. The 400 highest-income taxpayers — who average more than $300 million a year — would each get a tax cut of at least $15 million a year, which works out to more than five times as much as the typical college graduate earns over a lifetime, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Do we really expect this group of the very rich to create jobs or educational opportunities for the rest of us with their windfall?
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Of course not. These entitlement policies for the wealthy have drastically reduced the benefits of citizenship for middle and low-income Americans alike, producing lower rates of social mobility and higher rates of poverty than in most advanced industrial countries.
So whatever differences we may have over particular policies and programs, I heartily endorse Ivanka Trump’s argument that the real test of an entitlement program is whether it is an investment in the security and prosperity of all Americans. From my point of view, that is a far better use of resources than adding to the nest eggs of the children of the super-rich, who are already quite entitled enough.